readers, all of them set in Venice, you collide with a restless mind, teeming with fantastical ideas, intoxicated by language and all things Venetian.
This time, we are in the city of 1783. Well, sort of. La Serenissima has fallen under the boot of the brutal Fogfinger and his Fog Squad thugs. The lives of the indolent rich are eased by countless automata who pour their coffee, clean their shoes, walk them outdoors where tin footmen transport them in sedan chairs, or wind-up gondoliers crew their craft. Every Sunday, mechanical monkey priests deliver identical sermons to the wretched poor, forced to listen to Fogfinger’s latest decrees from the pulpit.
The novel opens with a terrifying scene in which a young seamstress, Amneris, climbs the ramp inside the bell-tower of the Frari to meet her fate. Is she to be sacrificed to appease the Primeval Crocodile in the annual Lambing Ceremony, another of Fogfinger’s instruments of oppression? At the top of tower, a wind-up box will open to reveal either a Madonna’s head or a skull. Life or death.
Before we can know the outcome, the novel whirls into flashback, ushering in a huge cast of characters and a kaleidoscope of a plot – kaleidoscopes are indeed central to the story which is charged with brilliant, shifting patterns and surprises. With Amneris, we meet her friend Biri, a Venetian version of a cockney kid, and Tockle, the likeable son of a water-seller. Then there are the vain stone statues who send Chinese whispering messages up and down the Grand Canal, vegetarian sea monsters, flying cats, a wicked merchant, a sea-captain incarcerated in the Doge’s Palace for 19 years, talking mermaids, and more and more automata maintained by the wretched Winder-Uppers. The more fortunate of the starving underclass of Venice still ply the traditional trades - glass blowing or sewing fine silk, perhaps. The poor are not without spirit – there is an underground Resistance, with a special children’s wing. There is also a mysterious
girl, starved of love but stuffed with sugary cakes by her wicked lawyer father, intent on selling her off to the lustful Fogfinger who likes a plump young girl every now and again (Ms Lovric is far from squeamish about such pc sensitivities.)
The author’s enthusiasm for Venice cannot resist digressions into social history and tradition along with a plethora of Italian words and place names – perhaps she would argue they lend authenticity. Sometimes you feel Lovric has written herself into a corner she can escape only by the instant invention of a new bit of magic. Pouf! A squadron of intelligent magic moths – that should do the trick! To an adult eye, some of this might seem a little hastily, even frenetically, contrived. The speech given to the chief Mermaid, for example, capitalises all the nouns. Eh? But that would not be evident when spoken, surely, short of strange and too frequent emphases. The denoument may seem protracted, even anti-climactic – so many ends to tie up. But young readers will probably be very happy riding the pell-mell plot with the bad guys getting their nasty desserts and the good guys ending up happy and triumphant. The uniqueness of Lovric’s voice and its limitless, attractive energy will not be denied.
GF Through Dead Eyes HHHH
Chris Priestley, Bloomsbury, 224pp, 978-1-4088-1106-1, £10.99 Hbk
Alex is beset by troubles. His mother left the family home a year ago to live with another man and his relationship with his father is uneasy. He has been in trouble at school for stalking a girl from his class and now, on an enforced holiday, he must travel to Amsterdam and amuse himself whilst his father works on a documentary there.
However, life begins to look rather better when he discovers he is to have the company of Angelien, the daughter of Saskia, his father’s editor and former girlfriend. Despite a considerable age difference he finds himself attracted to Angelien and fascinated by her accounts of
the history of the city, whose detail and colour absorb the reader, too. When she takes him to an antiques market he feels compelled to purchase a mysterious Japanese mask - and then his troubles begin anew.
As he puts on the mask he is transported to life in 17th century Amsterdam through the persona of Hanna, a recluse who murdered her father and who he has seen in a painting in the Rijksmuseum. As Hanna increasingly takes over his mind he finds himself losing his grip on reality. His turbulent feelings are exploited by Hanna through the mask and it is only when he is irresistibly drawn to echo Hanna’s suicide jump from his window that he tells his father what has been going on. However, he is not believed and drifts even further into unhappy isolation, a state on which the dead Hanna feeds. Before he leaves Amsterdam his father destroys the mask, but on their return to England Hanna appears again, as does the reconstructed mask.
Hanna’s story neatly parallels much of Alex’s experience-the resentment he feels towards his mother, the emotional distance between him and his father - and the descriptions of her possession of Alex in his overwrought state are credible. The book combines teenage angst, history and horror in a convincing weave and is recommended to able and mature readers between 11 and 15.
VR The Hanged Man Rises HHHH
Sarah Naughton, Simon and Schuster, 240pp,9780857078653, £6.99 pbk
When their parents are killed in a fire, Titus and his little sister, Hannah, are all alone in the world. However, this is Victorian London, and their world is the grimey underworld where crime and poverty reign. Not only that, a serial killer is stalking these streets, his victims, young children. Titus finds hope when his friend, the policeman Inspector Pilbury apprehends and hangs the perpetrator of the crimes - or has he?
14+ Secondary/Adult If You Find Me HHHHH
Emily Murdoch, Orion Publishing Group, 304pp, 978 1 78062 152 4, £9.99, pbk
Carey Violet Blackburn believes she is 15 years old. She lives with her six year-old sister Jenessa in a broken-down caravan in the middle of a wooded nature reserve in Tennessee. Their mother shares the caravan but uses drugs and often disappears for periods of time. To get money for drugs, Carey’s mother forces her to have illegal sexual relations with men for money.
The sisters’ mother has told them that they had to get away from their father because he was not a good person. An incident occurs – its nature not revealed till near the end – which causes Jenessa to become silent. She will whisper to Carey but otherwise remains mute.
Responding to a note from Carey’s mother
stating that she is unable to care for the children, their father and a social worker appear on the scene. The children are to rejoin their father in the civilised world. Murdoch’s book now relates the sisters’ readjustment to their new life. It also involves the gradual unveiling of Carey’s great secret, the secret that struck her sister dumb.
The sisters must adapt to a wholly new environment. They now have a father, a step-mother and a step-sister Delaney. Poor Delaney has little chance of offering Carey and Jenessa anything like a welcome. All her life, her father has been seeking his other daughters.
In the modern world we all recognise, Carey is a stranger in a strange land. Murdoch’s accomplishment is that she enables the reader most convincingly to see that world from the viewpoint of a new re-entrant. Carey’s voice is utterly persuasive, the almost-silent voice of her sister no less so. In the relationship between Carey and Jenessa, this reviewer
saw more than a casual reminder of the relationship between Scout and Jem Finch.
The reader sees three distinct identities competing for control of Carey’s psyche. She is the girl in the woods, tough and determined, obliged to act as a substitute mother. She is the teenager acclimatising to a new world of school, friends and boys. And she is what her mother made her, a former teenage prostitute. The battle that takes place at the heart of the book is mortal combat.
RB A Dream of Lights HHHH
Kerry Drewery, HarperCollins, 400pp, 9780007446599, £7.99, pbk, e-book available
With the global success of The Hunger Games trilogy, so-called dystopian fiction has been a major preoccupation for YA publishers for some time now. The trend has ushered in numerous works of
futuristic fantasy, set in frightening alien worlds, teetering on the brink of meltdown due to totalitarian governments, widespread poverty and dehumanising repression.
But who needs fantasy, when all these elements are also present in Kerry Drewery’s second novel, set in an all-too realistic 21st century North Korea. Yoora is a teenage girl who lives with her parents and grandparents in a small village, where as beulsun – that is, members of the ‘hostile’ class of tainted blood – they are condemned to work on the land with no hope of privileges. Yoora’s life is a miserable and monotonous one of hard labour, punctuated by messages from the ruling Party of Kim Jong-Il: We grow up in the land of freedom/All the little comrades march in rows/Singing in this paradise of peace/Tell me, of what can the world envy us?. So brain-washed is Yoora that she does not question all that has been drummed into her about her homeland until she has a strange dream of a lit-up
Books for Keeps No.200 May 2013 29
This is a tense thriller aimed at young readers KS2 . Sarah Naughton combines the conventions and themes of the period detective story with the fashion for the supernatural to create a rich mix of intrigue and the macabre. The Victorian background, especially the dirt and lawlessness of Titus’ world, are neatly conveyed without resort to Dickensian prose. Indeed, the narrative style is briskly contemporary ensuring young readers will be able to turn the pages effortlessly. And there is plenty of action to excite them, from the drama of the opening chapter to the final climax. Titus and his little sister, Hannah, are attractive protagonists, their relationship providing enough human interest to underpin the plot and add depth. Nor do they operate alone. The presence of the adult, Inspector Pilbury, lends an element of realism - without detracting from the central role of the young people, Titus and his friend, Lilly.
Young readers today have sophisticated tastes, fed by film and television dramas; they look for similar themes and pace in their reading - but at an appropriate level . The Hanged Man Rises is an ideal recommendation for this audience.
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